Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Secret Lives of Pastors' Wives-Boundaries (Relationships)

As previously stated, 30-40% of pastors will have an affair. I wondered how this number compared to the general population. I found varying numbers. I do research for a living, so I know how to do it, but I don't have the time or inclination to do serious peer-reviewed research for my blog (not bringing work home with me). This MSN article will have to suffice in lieu of rigorous research. The gist the "American Sexual Behavior" study of 10,000 people over 20 years is that 22% of married men and 15% of married women have cheated at least once. If the numbers on both sides can be trusted, then pastors cheat twice as much as men in other professions. Hmmmm....

Why does this happen? Why are men in vocational ministry more likely to cheat? I don't know the exact answer, but I have some suspicions. First of all, most ministers are really good listeners. Women like to be listened to and validated. Some women also see pastors are "the perfect man" and put them on an unrealistic pedestal. (Just an FYI, pastors still leave their dirty underwear on the floor and forget to drag the garbage out to the curb on occasion). So women see this ideal man who is a good listener, she admires him and begins to tell him how awesome he is, and...then the conditions are prime.

So what to do? It's all about boundaries. Ministers absolutely have to have boundaries in place for how they interact with others of the opposite sex (or even the same sex, i.e., Ted Haggard), especially in counseling situations. When Robert was at a traditional church, his (our) boundaries were as follows:
*Never ride alone in a car with another female.
*Always remain visible when counseling, esp. a female. Someone else had to be in the outer office and he had an open window in his office door so anyone could walk by and see what was going on.
*Never allow another female in the house when I wasn't home (even a random youth who dropped by just to say hi)
*He always informed me when he had a conversation with a female friend--not a quick "Hi, how are you?" conversation, but a real conversation.
*All phone calls and texting to females were information-sharing and not just chatting.
*We both have total access to each other's email, cellphones, FB, etc. and know each other's passwords. We generally don't check up on each other, but we know that we can do so very easily.
*He trusted and respected my intuition and input re: "dangerous women."

Those boundaries were all legalistic and worked well. Normally legalism is a bad thing, but sometimes there is something to be said for ironclad rules. In a large church they worked. I suppose I had similar boundaries (i.e., not riding in a car, random chats, etc. with men) except that I worked 100% with other women and really was only around other guys in the context of our couple friends so it was a non-issue. The only time it became an issue is that WITHOUT FAIL, every time Robert went out of town for a youth event some major home repair need occurred. Once our electric garage door just started going up and down repeatedly and out of control and another time the kitchen sink backed up. I called our senior pastor to help tame the garage door and our across the street neighbor came and snaked out my sink. So those time there was a male in the house with my husband out of town, but the kids were there too and Robert knew about it. I'm sure if someone had been staking out the house they could have started all sorts of rumors.

Anyway, the list from above is pretty typical among many pastors. However, there are those who don't have established boundaries or change them. I have known of several situations in which the wife feels uncomfortable with how much time her pastor-husband is spending with another female church or staff member and/or the level of intimacy (inc. phone calls, emails) with another female. Anytime the wife feels uncomfortable then the husband needs to cease and desist!! Find another person to counsel the woman, block the woman's needy phone calls, whatever. We females have some powerful God-given intuition and we know (truly) how manipulative other women can be. Personally, I have never been too concerned about this yet, mostly because Robert has always been super vigilant about not putting himself in potentially compromising situations. However, there have been a few women that made my chick radar go off. A couple of them were emotionally needy and one of them was just bad news and a user.

However, now Robert is a church planter and I work in an environment with a lot of men. The rules have had to change and adapt. Robert no longer has an office, except at home. He no longer has a secretary or co-workers to be an extra person around for accountability when counseling. I work full-time so I can't be that extra person either. Most of the counseling either occurs at our house at night when I am around or more likely, at the local coffee shop or the student union at the university. Robert works out of the coffee shop several hours a day and they all know him there. I don't go nearly as often, but when I have gone he introduced me to everyone and said, "If you see me here with someone other than my wife then let her know." I then responded that he probably would be there with someone other than me, but it was okay. When Robert does meet with another female in public he lets me know and he usually has the person bring a friend along.

Speech pathology is an overwhelmingly female field, but academia is not. I am on several committees and a board of directors with other guys and I have been involved in a couple of research projects with just me and another guy. Again, any meetings have occurred in our offices with either open doors or windows and Robert knows about everything. We've had to adjust and modify our rules as we've gone along, but we still stay accountable to each other and let each other know our dealings with people of the opposite sex.

I have been involved in a couple of different forums for pastors' wives and the issue of boundaries is often discussed. I have heard some women say that you absolutely can't be friends with someone of the opposite sex and that if you have to work with opposite gendered people then you should never share feelings or emotions. Everything should stay very "surface."

One of my all-time favorite movies is When Harry Met Sally. Harry would agree that men and women can't be friends.

Harry: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I'm saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally: That's not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry: No you don't.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: No you don't.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: You only think you do.
Sally: You say I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail 'em too.
Sally: What if they don't want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn't matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sally: Well, I guess we're not going to be friends then.
Harry: Guess not.
Sally: That's too bad. You were the only person that I knew in New York.

I don't think that's entirely true. However, I think there can potentially be a grain of truth there. I do think that it is unwise to have close intimate friends of the opposite sex. I always had some deep wonderful friendships in high school and college with guys. They were some of my most treasured friendships. These were guys with whom I could hang out and talk for hours and that I trusted with my deepest secrets and dreams. And they were platonic. However, they were very intimate in the emotional depth of those friendships and that's no really appropriate within the realm of marriage. I think that friends of the opposite sex either have to be "couple friends" or a friend who is a mutual friend of the husband and the wife.

Regarding surface relationships, one can only talk about the weather so much. If I am talking with someone at church, frequently (and rightly so) spiritual issues should come up in conversation and those are very deep conversations, usually with significant emotion attached. Similarly, when I am at work I am in a double-barreled helping profession as both a speech pathologist and a teacher. Everyone I work with, and in fact every professor I have ever met, is VERY passionate about what he/she does. That automatically leads to deeper conversations about ideology, beliefs, passion, justice, causes, emotional attributes, etc. Combine that with the fact that I work alongside these people at least 40 hours a week and it inevitable that we talk about our families, our successes and failures, our challenges and dreams. And Robert did the same with his male and female colleagues when he worked in a large traditional church. If you are human and relational, it's unavoidable. I think we can be open and share, but that there is a filter in place. If I had a fight with my husband or we were having marital problems, then I would certainly never discuss that with another guy. That's just being smart.

We also have to be aware of people around us and of accidentally sending out mixed messages. I did have an incident a few months ago where I was speaking at a conference. During the breaks and the application part of the workshop this guy kept coming up to talk to me. At first it was related to the topic of the presentation, but then it got more personal. I noticed he was standing closer and making more eye contact and just coming up with stupid things to talk about. I'm a little slow, because it has been a long time since a guy other than my husband has made a move, but I finally figured out what was going on. I had already stepped back and starting crossing my arms and sending "back off" body language. Once the lightbulb went off then I started flashing my wedding band a lot and saying, "my husband" this and "my husband" that.

Bottom line is that ministerial couples have to set boundaries. There needs to be a little wiggle room, but overall the boundaries need to be pretty tight. And unless one partner is obsessively jealous or has some significant trust issues, then they should trust each other's intuition and nip potential problems in the bud. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16b)

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